Midfield General

So Far Away -- and So Close

Why Germans and Argentines have so much in common, even in soccer.

Does the Argentine soccer team dance around its opponents to the rhythm of el tango? If so, they have the Germans to thank for it. For it was Heinrich Band, a little salesman from the Ruhr town of Krefeld who, in the mid-19th century, invented with the bandoneón, the very instrument that German sailors later on took to Buenos Aires and which, with its weeping sound, became emblematic of the tango. In fact, the two countries are so connected that Germans might almost root for Argentina -- almost.

German Socialists fled to Argentina when Otto von Bismarck took over power in Prussia. German Jews fled to Argentina when Hitler took over power in the Third Reich. Nazis fled to Argentina when their 1000 years of power were brought to a premature end. One of them, Erich Priebke, responsible for some of the most gruesome massacres the SS committed in Italy, happily lived in the Patagonian town of Bariloche for decades, where he headed the German school, before anyone cared to find out.

Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón, who somehow wanted to establish Argentina as a third pole in global politics after World War II, lured German nuclear physicists to Patagonia to build him an atomic bomb of his own -- only to find out after a couple of years that Americans and Soviets had only left la cuarta, the very bottom, of the German nuclear expertise up for grabs. And then, during the last military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, former Nazi officials helped the junta set up private torture chambers while companies like Mercedes Benz set up lists of trade unionists who were to disappear. They even bought incubators for the dictatorship's elite, so that babies from "guerilla" mothers could be raised by decent, childless couples from the police and military. And by the way, Franz Beckenbauer and other prominent German soccer figures complained about the German media mentioning the dictatorship during the 1978 World Cup, famously claiming that he hadn't "seen any torture chamber at all."

These two countries have had something going on between them for much longer than there even was a World Cup.

Yet the German view is a puzzled one of disparagement, too. So many cows. So much grass land. And so messy, so bankrupt. This is a perspective many Germans have on Argentina. Why can this country, about one century ago one of the richest in the world, never really profit from its potential? It seems to be infected by an energy-sapping melancholy -- a nostalgic way of looking at the past, as in the tango's lyrics and melodies.

And it is one way of looking at Argentina's soccer. We envy and adore the genius who seems like he barely has to try, be it Diego Maradona or be it Lionel Messi. And then again it is unthinkable for Germans to romanticize a hero who has -- like Maradona in the 1986 semifinal -- scored a goal by unfair means, with the "Hand of God."

Even with Messi in the side, however, this tournament seems to echo Argentina's unfulfilled potential. We ask ourselves, "Why has this country, with so many great players, played such a boring World Cup?" In a way, Argentina's discipline and focus on a strong defense is compatible to the uninspiring philosophy of the old Nationalmannschaft, before Jogi Löw took over as a coach. There is more of us in Argentina than we think. And maybe this can only be explained by the many things our two countries have had in common -- starting with the bandoneón.

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Midfield General

Avoiding the Messi Curse

For Argentina's soccer team, like its economy, diversification is the key to success.

Argentina is not known in the world for economic management. But its road to the final game of the World Cup is indeed a lesson in economics. Far away from the larger-than-life epic style (on and off the field) of Diego Armando Maradona who took the country to the final stage in 1986 and 1990, Lionel Messi's team arrives at the 2014 finals by rather the opposite road.

In economics, Dutch disease is used as a cautionary example of what can happen when a country discovers a new source of wealth, typically a natural resource. Investments are directed to the "star" resource - whether it is copper, diamonds, or oil -- triggering a currency appreciation, which makes the country's other products less competitive on the export market. Star players like Maradona and Messi present national teams with an analogous dilemma by creating structures and strategies around those exceptional resources. Argentina's head coach Alejandro Sabella has openly recognized this during and before the 2014 World Cup, even coining the phrase "Messidependence" to refer to his team's reliance on Messi.

To avoid Dutch disease the economy (or the team) needs to reduce dependency by managing the structural imbalances created by the booming sector (or player), to ensure equitable distribution and stability, typically through worker retraining and product diversification. This is precisely what Argentina has done once it entered the World Cup's knockout stage. Messi's role was balanced with the rest of the team and Dutch disease was averted. The booming sector (player) adapted himself to the rest of the economy (team) and the development continued -- all the way to the finals. Sabella himself admitted his job was "to disguise that imbalance in the best way possible."

In consonance with the times, Argentina's economy fell full throttle into the resource curse in 1986 and 1990, Maradona's heyday. Growth based on a "star" product has locked Latin American countries into commodity bubbles that burst when international conditions turned adverse. National football teams also get locked into excessive dependence, lack of diversification, and -- ultimately -- an unbalanced pattern of development and playing. Amid the Argentina's 1986 World Cup win against West Germany, nobody questioned the model built around a star player. But this kind of dependence can create institutional instability and even regime breakdown -- both in politics and on soccer field. This was one of the effects caused by Neymar's loss and exposed by Germany in the match against Brazil, when the home team could not react to Germany's first goal, completely lost direction and henceforth suffered seven humiliating goals.

When Maradona coached the Argentine team in 2010, Germany exposed the vulnerability of the Argentine model and sent them home with four goals. But times have changed. Just as in macroeconomic terms the 1980s was the lost decade for Argentina and the 1990s a period of neoliberal reforms, the 2000s were times of economic growth and political maturity. 

Emerging countries are more prudent. Argentina is reflecting this in its national soccer team. Sabella maximizes his star resource, Messi, but as a means to further the collective game, encouraging forwards to score and also to help in defense when the team loses possession. Regardless of the end match against Germany, Argentina´s team is an example of economic diversification at its best, a lesson in handling booming and lagging sectors within an economy.

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